583 6 Riga Night

Well, yes, I have to admit that two trips to the Baltic in one month is a little excessive and you would be right in thinking that I am a bit “balticed-out”. It is not just the constant change of currency from Krone to Euros, Kroons to Rubles, and Krona to Lats that gets you down, but also the languages of countries that are so comparatively small, Russia excluded, that all have different tongues which are incomprehensible to the other. How do they manage? So as you glide round the seas of the Baltic these are the first problems with which you have to wrestle. But these hefty matters can only add to the pleasure and sense of travel which you feel as you visit each of these highly divergent countries.

Copenhagen, a delight, but forget the Mermaid as you will not be able to see it for all the seething masses clicking away at this unhappy little creature, instead walk into the town, passing the two dotty little pavilions topped with gilded crowns where Queen Margrethe boards her Royal Yacht and walk along the quay towards the Amalienborg. On your left the stupendous new Opera House and the whole panorama of sea-girt Copenhagen with its spires, domes and air of prosperity. Do not miss, if you are sculpturally inclined, the museum to Denmark’s greatest sculptor, Bertil Thorwaldsen. Housed in a thumping great building in the Egyptian taste, painted on the outside with sculptors at work, this is a splendid experience as it houses every aspect of the man’s work… including his tomb.

Onward from there to Gdansk. Shades of Lech Walesa and Solidarity for those of us of a certain age. This great city is at something of a turning point. Lenin shipyard now silent and rusting whilst the touristic hordes are funnelled through the impeccably restore Green Gate into the impeccably restored old city. Impeccable it is, but sadly devoid of spirit cluttered as it is with endless amber-bead sellers and frying onions. Passing beyond these restored streets there is little but dereliction and broken down buildings of the Soviet era. Our guide was fiercely enthusiastic about her city, an enthusiasm she did well to sustain against the enormous amount of restoration and rebuilding that needs still to be done.

On from there to Latvia and its spick and span capital, Riga. A vibrant city where the cobble streets are filled with inviting cafés gay with sunshades and wonderful flower displays. I remember one particularly with huge tubs of white daturas. Aside from the cafés is the architecture, remarkable in every way. A selection of buildings from the medieval to the modern, but most astonishingly the bizarre streets of Art Deco buildings. This is a version of Art Deco peculiar to Latvia, with Neo-Classical pillars melded with Mucha-esque maidens, Baroque caryatids and jutting gargoyles. Pick-and-mix architecture. National Romanticism it is called. Well, thank goodness someone has named it for otherwise it defies description.

Tallinn also a delight, with its mighty ramparts and vertiginous views over the main town. It is all a little Hansel and Gretel with its pistachio green and rose-bud pink buildings surmounted by mansard roofs and churches with soaring spires or onion domes, depending on denomination. How these countries, hidden behind the Iron Curtain so recently and subject to generations of upheaval, seem to have brought themselves into the 21st century with such élan!

Next to the mighty city of St. Petersburg. The ultimate in make-believe cities with its glittering cupolas, spires and palaces perched on the banks of the swift-flowing Neva. But oh! Not to be there in July and August. Nose to nose it is, with ship-loads of tourists from all corners of the world disgorged onto its thoroughfares and museums. The Hermitage, forget it. Want to see the Michaelangelos? Forget it. Invisible thanks to hordes of photo-mad Japanese tourists, the Impressionists likewise. But if you walk down the Nevsky Prospect and into the Russian Museum you have it to yourself. Why would you not want to see their collection of icons, unrivalled it is, as is the collection of paintings by Levitsky, Repin, Serov and all the great panoply of 19th century artists you will see nowhere else in the world? You are in Russia. Go and look at Russian art and escape the hordes. Hordes, who take photographs so they can look at them later!

On from here to the Åland Islands and the little port of Mariehamn. A visit to a windjammer the Pommern. Complete down to the last malin spike this vessel used to sail to Australia and back with grain as recently as 1936. What privations the crew must have endured, mountainous seas round Cape Horn, appalling food, no proper washing facilities (self or clothes),and the all-pervading smell of bilge-water and your fellows. Glad to get back to our ship!

Another ship, this time the Vasa in Stockholm. How embarrassing to see the pride of your fleet sink before the eyes of the world just 20 minutes into its maiden voyage. One of the great oops! moments of marine history. But here this magnificent ship now is in the centre of Stockholm encased in its museum and complete down, not just to the last malin spike, but also to every accoutrement known to the 17th century seaman. The pewter plates, the skeleton of the ship’s cat, the backgammon board, the clothes, the tacks to repair the shoes, and some of the enormous bronze cannon which caused the ship to tip over on that fateful day in August 1628. Stockholm is a most beautiful city which should be approached from the sea, sailing through the myriad of islands which make up the archipelago. This we did with the sun glinting on the waters as the speed boats whizzed past on their way back to their iron-red cottages which are the summer homes of the Stockholmers. We even had ABBA hits belting out over the sound system!

Going home was a bit of an anti-climax.